By Richard Jerome
December 20, 1999 12:00 PM

By its very nature, Van Hughes’s life had always followed an orderly pattern. A Navy chief master at arms with 18 years’ service, Hughes would put in five-day weeks at the Naval Training Station in San Diego, then drive 300-plus miles home to Mesa, Ariz., to spend weekends with his wife, Shirley. And with their two grown sons married and out of the house, the couple had looked forward to a tranquil retirement. They would travel, certainly, and perhaps buy that log cabin in the woods they had always talked about.

That was four years ago. Now it’s a Tuesday afternoon, and their one-story stucco home, next door to the place where Shirley’s parents live, is a study in suburban chaos. With several dogs and cats underfoot, 5-year-old Donicio is playing Demolition Man on the living-room computer. Soon his brothers and sisters-nine of them—arrive home from school in waves, grabbing newly bought juice and snacks in the kitchen. When 11-year-old Juan bursts in, beaming, he shouts, “Hi, Mom!” to a weary Shirley. Says Van with a smile, sighing: “All those dreams of a retired life, they’re gone.”

In fact, Hughes did retire from the Navy in 1996. But instead of leading the leisurely life of a pensioner, he’s working as a security guard at the Phoenix city hall. After all, he and Shirley have a new family to feed—a huge one. For last July, the couple, both 52, legally adopted Donicio and nine of his siblings, ranging in age from 5 to 18, recording the largest group adoption ever in Arizona. Indeed, says Mary Ault, ex-administrator with the state’s Division of Children, Youth and Family, “it’s the largest one nationally anyone can remember. We always place siblings together, if possible. But we never guessed we’d place these kids together.” Now they will all join in the Hugheses’ traditional Christmas Eve celebration: Bible readings, a smorgasbord—then gift-giving on the patio around an angel-adorned tree. Amazingly, Shirley doesn’t see any cause for a fuss. “Why 10 kids? Why not?” she says. “There are times I wish I had a little time for me, but I don’t regret it at all.”

Taking in the kids was as much a rescue as an adoption. In a shocking case, authorities learned in April 1995 that the 10 siblings were living in squalor, sharing a two-bedroom apartment in Phoenix with their birth mother, an aunt and five cousins. Their four different biological fathers were long gone, and their mother, later treated for alcoholism, often left them for days at a time. Acting on a tip, police swept in with state social workers, who placed the children in foster care.

One of two couples to take the children were the Hugheses, who had only recently signed up to be foster parents. After his sons had left home, Hughes had heard then-California Gov. Pete Wilson discuss the state’s dire need for foster parents. “I thought how quiet the house was,” he says. “I said, ‘Why don’t we do something about it?’ ” First they took in Donicio, Juan, Jose, now 9, Stephanie, 8, and Veronica, 6. Two years ago a caseworker suggested they formally adopt not only those five, but their brothers and sisters (Frank, 18, Teresa, 16, Asucena, 15, Steven, 13, and 12-year-old Tino), who were scattered in various foster homes. “My mind told me, ‘I’m 50 years old, what would I want 10 kids for at this age?’ ” Van recalls. “But my heart told me it was the right thing to do.”

Ault notes that the siblings were less than ideal candidates for adoption—and not only because of numbers. “People want blue-eyed blonds under 7,” she says, adding that children from troubled backgrounds often come with behavior problems. But Van has no second thoughts. “When police found them, Veronica and Doni were lying in their own feces,” says Van. “When I see what they went through and how they are now, it brings tears to my eyes.”

Hughes, born in Galveston, knows a thing or two about crowded households. His father, Clarence, a smelter, died when Van was 7, leaving his homemaker mother, Helen, to raise eight kids in a three-room house. Hughes joined the Navy at 18 and served four years as a radar technician, including an eight-month hitch in Vietnam. While docked in Boston in November 1967, he met Shirley Russo, an electronics worker who was a volunteer hostess at the USO. They wed four months later.

Over the next two decades, the couple lived in Massachusetts, California and Arizona while raising sons Jeff, 30, and Jason, 28, both now corrections officers. When Van first left the service in 1969, he worked as a mechanic, then as a police officer in Woburn, Mass. Out west he held jobs at several auto plants, then in 1982 reenlisted in the Navy as an M.P. After he and his wife took in the first three children, Hughes retired from the Navy to live at home full-time. “I loved the Navy; that was a hard decision,” he says. “I dreaded going out and having to start at the bottom, especially at my age. But I said, ‘It doesn’t matter. I gotta do this.’ ” Hughes hired on as a guard at the Arizona State Prison in Florence, where his sons were working, and in early 1997 he and Shirley took in the last two of the children. Later that year, when the caseworker suggested the mass adoption, the Hugheses held a pizza party for all 10 siblings and let them vote on the issue. Says Van: “They all voted to be adopted.”

For Frank, the eldest, it was a no-brainer. “Horrible, a nightmare,” the high school junior recalls of his childhood. “No kid should ever have to go through that.” Early on, he had spent time in the custody of his father. “He used a belt, or he would make us take branches off trees and hit us with them,” says Frank. “My mom was never violent. My mom I could deal with.” His mother, though, did go on drinking binges. “When she wasn’t drunk, she would give us her welfare check and tell us to hide it from her,” he says.

Frank and Teresa often served as surrogate parents, looking after the younger ones whenever their mother disappeared. “She would say, ‘I’m gonna go to the store,’ but she wouldn’t come back,” says Teresa, who, despite her harsh background, is now an upbeat A and B student. Her sister Asucena is an aspiring writer. In an unfinished short story, she explores the relationship between God and a 7-year-old boy whose mother abandons him. Asucena claims not to have suffered from her abusive childhood: “That only makes me stronger.” But she does have one complaint about the Hugheses. “I don’t know why,” she says, “but I wish they were stricter.”

“I was more strict with my own two,” Van admits. “The only thing I knew was how to take orders and give orders. I could’ve been more compassionate.” As the stay-at-home parent, Shirley drives the kids to school and athletic practice and dispenses most of the discipline. “Some kids I just have to talk to,” she says. “Others need grounding. I constantly make attitude adjustments; they go in for tune-ups regularly.” And the teenagers must observe a curfew. “When Mama goes to bed,” Shirley says, “the baby chicks better be in.” Her parents, Larry and Vera Russo, have embraced the brood. “I was a little negative at the beginning,” says Larry, 73. “But I fell in love with them—it took about a week.”

All the kids say they sometimes miss their birth mother. They phone her regularly, but there is still some anger. “I thought she loved beer more than us,” says Asucena. Van doesn’t let that pass. “Your mother is sick,” he says. “Never talk bad about her, because we never do.”

The Hugheses, who receive $6,600 a month in state aid, have added two bedrooms to their house, making a total of six. Money is tight, but the rewards are priceless: a hug from Doni or the smile that lights up Juan’s face when he says, “I’m really glad I’m in this family.”

“We take it a day at a time,” Van says. “I’m not a saint. I’m just a normal guy. You get so much more back than what you give.”

Richard Jerome

Michael Haederle in Mesa